Sunday, December 2, 2012

Bangladesh-India relations: Where stands the paradigm shift?

The Independent

Anniversary Issue: November 29, 2012

M. Serajul Islam

The Awami League took cue in 2008 from the successful thematic campaign of “change” of President Obama. The AL coined “deen bodoler pala” or “time for change” as their campaign theme to give the nation the hope that the dark days into which the country had plunged as a result of the emergency and army rule had ended and it was time for a new beginning. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina did not wait to show the nation that she meant business about changing to better times when she announced immediately upon assuming the reigns of the government that her major intention in foreign affairs was to put the history of bad relations with India behind and work for a paradigm shift in those relations.

The Prime Minister took unilateral initiatives to send the message to New Delhi about her seriousness. She stated categorically that her government will not allow Bangladesh’s soil to be used by Indian insurgents to launch terrorist and insurgent attacks against India. She backed her statement by handing over to New Delhi seven top ULFA insurgents that helped the Indian Government to break the back of the many decades old ULFA insurgency in Assam. The initiatives were also a message to other insurgent Indian groups that the Bangladesh Government was determined not to allow any of them to use Bangladesh as a sanctuary for their actions. These groups have been using Bangladesh territory as a sanctuary since the Pakistan days, a nexus that was well established at the level of the intelligence and the security although when Bangladesh had an AL Government, there was no indulgence for them at the political level. 

Sheikh Hasina’s initiatives encouraged India to take some actions of its own. It came forward and offered Bangladesh a US 1 billion soft loan, later turning US$ 200 million out of it as grant. In the period when the two countries negotiated in good faith, the Indians also offered concessions on trade and went ahead a long way towards reaching an agreement for sharing the water of the Teesta River. Although major irritants like killing of innocent Bangladeshis in Bangladesh-India border remained despite Indian assurance on zero tolerance, the two sides also negotiated and settled the land boundary agreement (LBA). In the midst of all these, Sheikh Hasina went to New Delhi, an official trip that was upgraded by a breach of protocol to a State Visit. In New Delhi, the two sides signed 56 pages Joint Document (JD) that was more than just a document; the negotiators of the two sides described this JD as a vision document designed to take forward Sheikh Hasina’s vision of a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations. 

In the meantime, Bangladesh continued to provide India security assistance that India utilized to take care of its security concerns concerning Bangladesh being the soft underbelly of the country’s security. Bangladesh also provided India land transit form its mainland to the Indian state of Tripura as well as allowed its port of Chittagong on a trial basis that it used to build a power station in Tripura, a project that will help the economic development of the impoverished Indian state that has significant gas potentials in a major way. In Bangladesh, the Prime Minister’s chief negotiators, her Adviser for International Affairs, Dr. Gowhar Rizvi and Economic Affairs, Dr. Mashiur Rahman went for a media offensive to convince the doubters mainly among the opposition BNP that Bangladesh was not giving away its major playing cards, namely the land transit and the security cards, without benefitting in a major way. 

The two Advisers stated that in exchange for the two major concessions that Bangladesh was offering India, it would receive very significant economic benefits. They mentioned repeatedly that land transit will transform Bangladesh into the regional connectivity hub by integrating the economies of Indian northeast, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh where Bangladesh will also provide the region with the use of the sea ports of Chittagong and Mongla. In fact, Dr. Rizvi stressed that the economic benefits of becoming the regional connectivity hub will be so vast that compared with it, the fees that Bangladesh expected to receive from India by giving it land transit will be “meager.” Perhaps this was the reason why Dr. Mashiur Rahman was angry that Bangladesh was asking for transit fees from India. 

There was an air of great expectancy  among  the people of Bangladesh that they will see the results of the paradigm shift that Sheikh Hasina had promised at the time the Indian Prime Minister came to Dhaka in September, 2011,. The Prime Minister’s negotiating team was certain that the paradigm shift would be achieved with the inking of the Teesta water sharing agreement and the land boundary agreement during that visit. The two sides also worked a number of other agreements intended to strengthen the paradigm shift in bilateral relations to make it sustainable. On its part, Bangladesh allowed Indian trucks to haul heavy equipments to Tripura using Bangladesh’s weak road infrastructure. Bangladesh also allowed India two more new ports of call in the inland water protocol to allow India to use Bangladesh territory better for transit. Bangladesh did not seek or receive any concessions from India for the new ports of call and meantime continued with its security cooperation with India in earnest.

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister of India failed to deliver what Bangladesh expected on his visit to Dhaka. Mamata Banarjee gave a hint at the eleventh hour that the dream of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh for a paradigm shift had hit a major road block. She withdrew from the entourage of Manmohon Singh and followed this by refusing to allow the Prime Minister to sign the Teesta deal. She used the power of the province over water under the Indian constitution to stop the deal from being signed. New Delhi meekly acquiesced for reasons of politics because Mamata Banarjee’s Trinamool held the balance of power in the Centre. It made no effort to insist on its power to conduct foreign affairs given to it by the Constitution to overcome MB’s objection. 

Though the LBA agreement was inked in Dhaka; the debacle over the Teesta was enough to bring down the paradigm shift that Sheikh Hasina envisaged. In retaliation for India’s failure to deliver Teesta, Dhaka withdrew exchanging letters that would have given India land transit on a long term basis. Thus the whole edifice of a major shift of Bangladesh-India relations came down suddenly. Although India promised zero tolerance on border killings;  agreed not to proceed on Tippaimukh without Bangladesh on board and signed agreements in areas of trade and other fields, the forward movement of relations was halted on the Teesta issue flagging the importance of water in developing and sustaining Bangladesh-India relations. Both sides nevertheless tried to give a positive spin to the Indian Prime Minister’s visit based on these agreements and the LBA in particular.. Unfortunately, the Indians failed to ratify the LBA because the BJP objected to it when the Indian Prime Minister returned home.  The Indian media blamed its government for these failures, suggesting that India has proved that it cannot be trusted. The international media too was critical on India’s failure to deliver. 

Suddenly, everything looked different in the aftermath of the Indian Prime Minister’s visit. The Bangladesh negotiators were quickly off the media, no longer harping on the economic benefits of connectivity. The Prime Minister herself on many occasions urged the Indians to deliver their side of the commitment to carry relations forward; no doubt expressing her disappointment and political predicament for surely the failure of India to deliver pushed her into a tight political corner. Unfortunately, the ability of New Delhi to deliver got stuck in politics and not on good will though it has not been explained why India did not consider the Mamata factor and the BJP’s stand on LBA before the Indian Prime Minister came to Dhaka. It has also not been explained why the Bangladesh negotiators also did not separately see the Mamata factor and BJP’s stand before going ahead and committing Bangladesh major playing cards of land transit and security to India. There was no doubt that on both sides, the negotiators field to do their homework properly and raised expectations that they failed to deliver. 

Nevertheless, Sheikh Hasina’s vision of a paradigm shift and her government’s efforts to achieve it for which she showed great political courage unfortunately not matched by India has not been wasted. Although not given the publicity that it deserved, India’s positive stance on trade that has been the consequence of the initiatives taken by Sheikh Hasina has had very good results. In trade, the gap still remains hugely in favour of India but Bangladesh has made major strides into the Indian market that are expected to develop in the days ahead. In relations between countries, once trade picks up because barriers that had been created previously for reasons of politics have been brought down, there is no return. Thus on the economic track, there is no doubt that Sheikh Hasina’s vision of a paradigm shift has worked positively. 

The more important boost that the negotiations carried out between New Delhi and Dhaka has had has been on the way it has turned the once untouchable subject of land transit on its head. The Bangladesh negotiators in particular have been able to explain to the people across the political divide that Bangladesh will gain major economic benefits in granting land transit because it will make the country the hub of regional connectivity where its ports of Chittagong and Mangla will become the major focus of economic development of the region. Bangladesh economists have on their own initiative exposed the huge benefits of integrating the Indian northeastern states to Bangladesh that would be worth over US$ 100 billion annually eventually if allowed to grow to full potentials. 

The transformation of land transit to connectivity has in fact been the main positive development in Bangladesh-India relations. On the Bangladesh side, it has had positive impact on the BNP that has now shown the willingness to concede land transit to India in return for Bangladesh’s needs of waters of the common rivers and fair resolution of the other outstanding issues. The BNP has also shown positive stance on Indian need for security commitment that the AL Government has already given. The BNP has of course tied the two commitments firmly and unequivocally with India’s commitment and delivery on the needs of Bangladesh. Thus, on the key issues that India wants from Bangladesh, namely the issues of land transit and security, the AL and the BNP have moved to a position of consensus. The BNP has stated categorically that these commitments are conditioned to India granting Bangladesh its fair share of the waters of the common rivers and resolving all other outstanding issues fairly. The AL has made the same point to India when it withdrew the land transit agreement from the negotiating table during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit. In fact, since the visit of the Indian Prime Minister, the conduct of bilateral relations has cooled off significantly because India has failed to deliver on its commitment. Bangladesh has complained about lack of Indian interest with regards to its much publicized US$ 1 billion soft loan while India, as recently as in the last meeting of the two countries at Home Secretary level,  complained that Indian insurgents have still many camps located inside Bangladesh.  

Nevertheless, in their own way that reflects the country’s partisan politics, the two mainstream parties of Bangladesh have conveyed to India in no uncertain terms that the paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations now depends squarely on India; that such a forward movement will be possible only if India delivers what Bangladesh legitimately expects from it. That the message has not been ignored in New Delhi has been clear by the way it has reacted. In what analysts see as a sea change of New Delhi’s mindset towards Bangladesh, it invited first former President HM Ershad to India. This was followed by a high profile visit of Begum Khaleda Zia to New Delhi. India that in the past did not show much interest in any political party in Bangladesh other than the Awami League has entered into these relationships as part of what has been explained as New Delhi’s initiative to reach out to the democratic multi party polity of Bangladesh. 

There is significant meaning in this new initiative. It suggests that India now realizes two fundamental truths about negotiating with Bangladesh. First, it cannot receive anything from Bangladesh without reciprocity; that even the AL cannot give India anything without India giving Bangladesh was its expects . Second, there is now consensus in the two mainstream parties about the way to deal with India. These realizations of course are hugely important because the negotiations have also brought to surface for knowledge of all on both sides of the massive importance of the land transit and security cards to India. India will not rest in peace unless it has security assurance from Bangladesh because it is literally the “soft underbelly of its security.” Land transit is the key to integrating its fragile northeast to the India mainland not for economic reasons but for security as well. Together these two cards are of such value to New Delhi that if Bangladesh can play these cards as a nation, then it can get what it needs from India. 

These are the truths that have surfaced in the last four years. It is true that the paradigm shift did not happen the way Sheikh Hasina wanted because of factors not in her hands and not even in the hands of New Delhi, not yet at least. It is good that it did not happen her way because it has helped bring BNP on board and of course the realization in India that the ball is in their court; that if it wants  the immensely valuable land transit and security assurances from Bangladesh; it must deliver. New Delhi must also do what Bangladesh has done politically; resolve its own domestic political conflicts before seeking from Bangladesh its interests. In India, the other major party in its politics, the BJP must also come on board for positive relations with Bangladesh that is yet to be.

The parameters for the paradigm shift are now clear. The work that needs to be done is on the Indian side. India must also prove what it promised Begum Khaleda Zia when she visited New Delhi where she made the same positive gestures to India that Sheikh Hasina did upon assuming power. New Delhi must establish that it has no favorites in Bangladesh and that its relations are with the country and not with a political party, a view that Pranab Mukherjee highlighted when he visited Dhaka in May this year. There is yet another positive development towards a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations that surfaced during Begum Khaleda’s visit to New Delhi. 

In New Delhi, Begum Zia conveyed to India the idea of a Bangladesh-India-China Consortium with a deep sea port to be constructed in Sonadia for the development of the region. This concept is in fact an up gradation of the idea of connectivity with which the negotiators of Sheikh Hasina successfully transformed land transit into a viable and lucrative economic concept. The Indians showed interest in the idea of the Consortium and asked the BNP leader for more details. In putting this idea across, Begum Zia informed her Indian hosts that she had discussed this in Beijing that she had visited before going to New Delhi and that the Chinese had expressed positive interest in it.  

A Bangladesh-India-China Consortium that could bring in Bhutan and Nepal could also receive a positive support of the Americans if they are approached to finance the cost of the deep sea port given their current interest in the region flagged by the visit of the US President to Myanmar. If the Consortium generates genuine support of India and the US that are now together in a strategic partnership, it could be the beginning of the end of turmoil the region involving China and India and the start of a new era of economic development that could transform the region dramatically. The objective is far away still but the possibilities are now there on board for all concerned to see. Therefore the paradigm shift envisioned by Sheikh Hasina is very much alive but only if India can match her vision that has now become a vision of Bangladesh.

There has to be an interlude in the paradigm shift though. New Delhi does not appear likely to be ready to deliver on either the Teesta or the LBA for domestic politics under the current Congress led Government. Bangladesh’s elections in a little over a year’s time will be another reason for New Delhi to go slow. India too will have elections soon after Bangladesh has its. Therefore it is not likely that the bilateral reactions of the two countries will have any forward movement on the major issues  till elections in both countries.  Nevertheless, enough positives have been generated over the last four years to hope for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations for which the only remaining part of the process will be to bring the BJP on board and of course a period of waiting for elections and a new government in Dhaka and New Delhi. Meanwhile the ball for the paradigm shift of Sheikh Hasina’s vision is well and alive but in the Indian court.



The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

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